Despite becoming the most dominant post presence in the NBA, and bringing the Orlando Magic to within an arm’s reach of a world title the last two seasons, Dwight Howard had somehow become an afterthought heading into the 2010-11 season. With new and old fan favorites owning the headlines out East, speculation has emerged that Howard just isn’t on that top-flight level of NBA superstardom. Maybe he isn’t Superman after all, or maybe we’ve just lost sight at how hungry he is to become the greatest of all-time. In Dime #60, I sought to find the rest of the story.
Maybe we got too comfortable. Maybe we thought he got too comfortable.
Maybe he just made it look too easy too soon.
Whatever it was, it was probably our fault – the media, the fans, the entire short-attention-span-having Twitterverse – for hyping up Dwight Howard as a championship favorite, then tossing him aside in favor of something far shinier and newer further down south in Florida.
But Howard is no charity case, nor is he dwelling on the last two NBA titles that slipped through the grasp of his Orlando Magic. No, the man we’ve built up as the League’s best center and most marketable big man is not a sheep in wolf’s clothing. And it’s the sudden doubt in his ability to win a title as the centerpiece in Orlando that has created a more focused and motivated Dwight Howard – one who is finally ready to lead the Magic to its first ever championship.
At 24 years old, Howard is already the most dominant post presence in the NBA, and his list of hardwood accomplishments stretches as long as a Bill Simmons tangent. Try four All-Star nods, two Eastern Conference Finals appearances (once advancing to the big show), a Slam Dunk crown, an Olympic gold medal, and career averages of more than 17 points, 12 boards and two blocks per game, for starters. He is also the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year and holds the record for highest number of All-Star votes in a single year.
Outside of the game, the man we’ve come to know in Howard arrives just as advertised. Grown-up, but still not too far from the high school kid with a mouth full of braces and teenage exuberance most of us first met six or seven years ago. Dwight is polite, almost to a fault, charismatic, and doesn’t respond with the same sort of malaise that a guy of his status would answer questions he’s undoubtedly heard a few hundred times before.
“I mean, he’s always been a person that everybody wants to be around,” says Atlanta Hawks and ex-L.A. Lakers forward Josh Powell, one of Howard’s best friends. “He loves to smile and have a good time. He has a good heart. That’s something that hasn’t changed.”
“I just think he’s very charismatic and I think he’s one of those few big guys that can kind of transcend being a big guy,” says Magic teammate J.J. Redick. “You know Dwight is a larger-than-life figure.”
This past summer, while fellow USA Basketball Olympic teammates skipped the FIBA World Championship due to injuries or not wanting to risk blowing a big free-agency opportunity, Dwight traveled to impoverished areas in Haiti, India and China to play basketball with local kids. In Haiti, he helped fund educational and recreational efforts. Then, in early September, he spent an afternoon with a 62-year-old cancer patient whose lone “bucket list” wish was to meet Dwight Howard.
“I’m the kind of person that I enjoy people,” says Howard, whose combined Twitter/Facebook following exceeds 2.4 million people. “So I’m going to have fun, but I’m going to get the job done and I’m going to do it with a smile on my face. Each trip I go on, you know, I always come back better than I left. And I really came back from India, from China, and just being overseas with a greater perspective on life and on basketball.”
Once he steps foot back in the office, however, it’s a different story. Even though he is younger than all but three of his Magic teammates, Howard is counted on to be a leader in Orlando. Statistically, the 6-11, 265-pounder leads the Magic in almost all major categories, but off the floor, learning to be a leader is still a growing process.
“That’s my job,” Howard says. “Each year, I get better at it and I think the more and more I lead my teammates, the better our team will be. Each year, I’m learning things and picking up things from different players who are leaders on their team; how to run the team and just how to motivate the guys night in and night out to be the best.”
“I think he’s learning leadership, but I think he’s also learning that you have to lead by example; it’s not just with words,” explains Redick, a graduate of the leadership school of Coach K. “I think when he plays with the energy and the intensity that he has on most nights, that’s enough. I mean, that’s enough to lead, trust me. When he’s blocking shots and grabbing 20 rebounds and cleaning up all of our mistakes, that’s all the leadership that we need.”
It’s something that Howard has continually developed and improved upon since coming into the NBA as a rookie. Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy, often Dwight’s toughest critic, also sees his potential to captain the ship.
“I thought particularly the last three games in the Boston series (2010 conference finals), I thought he grew in terms of understanding even more fully what he needs to do as a leader in terms of setting the example and trying to bring other people up,” says Van Gundy. “I thought that was probably the most promising thing.”
Dwight averaged 27 points, 12.6 rebounds and 3.3 blocks while hitting over 60 percent from the field in those three games. Orlando won the first two to avoid elimination, but lost Game Six on Boston’s floor to end their season.
“I just think it’s going to all fall on me, you know, fall on my shoulders,” says Howard. “We can win multiple championships. Like I said, it all starts and finishes with the leader and I’m the leader of the team and I have to take responsibility for everything that happens.”
With so many expectations and the weight of an entire fan base and team counting on Dwight each game to produce, Orlando can only hope the pressure to succeed doesn’t wear on their young star. He does have a mean streak – any one of his flailing elbow’s victims will agree – but maybe Dwight really is too nice to get it done by himself. Maybe Superman 2.0 needs a dominant Justice League co-pilot to lead him through the playoffs and into the Promised Land. Shaq had Kobe and Dwyane. Garnett had Pierce. Duncan had Parker. Orlando has … balance.
The Magic have surrounded Dwight with arguably the best collection of all-around talent in the League, but a consistently dominant go-to star has yet to emerge. Hedo Turkoglu looked like he might have become that guy during Orlando’s 2009 run to the Finals, but he bolted out of Central Florida that summer, and 33-year-old Vince Carter is coming off the worst season of his career. Still, Howard whole-heartedly believes he can lead Orlando’s current squad to a ring, despite the growing concern that he often downplays his toughness.
Is Dwight too forgiving to get it done riding solo? It’s something that he’s ready to put firmly to rest once and for all.
Standing with shoulders the width of a dump truck, Howard is unstoppable and unmovable in the post. When he’s focused, there isn’t one defender this side of an agitated Shaq who can contain his explosiveness. So when he got punked by ESPN’s Skip Bayless online in late September for being too soft, it made an impression.
“At least I don’t look like Tarzan and sometimes play like Jane,” Bayless said to Howard over a video satellite feed.
“Sometimes play like Jane?” Is this what it’s come to?
Interesting, because over three rounds of the 2010 playoffs, Howard dropped over 18 points, 11 boards and three blocks per game on the Bobcats, Hawks and Celtics. All while fighting off double teams and defensive schemes aimed squarely at limiting his touches. Sure, Howard is prone to the occasional rough shooting night, but he remains perhaps the most feared individual force in the NBA. When he gets in a rhythm, destroying the opposition, there’s not too much anyone can do to stop him. It’s a detail that conference rivals like Josh Smith and Brook Lopez will freely admit.
“Saying ‘stop’ is such a bad word to use, but you gotta try and meet him early,” says Lopez, the New Jersey Nets’ franchise center. “He runs the floor very well and he’s fast, he’s strong and he’s athletic. You gotta meet him early and keep him from getting really deep post position and sealing. You gotta do a lot of your work early, because if you don’t you’re dead.”
“Just show him different looks,” says Smith, the Atlanta Hawks’ star who played with Howard on the juggernaut Atlanta Celtics AAU team in high school and finished second to Howard in last season’s NBA Defensive Player of the Year voting. “You gotta use your quickness, ’cause he’s strong and you can’t really just sit under and bang with him. Just try and frustrate him a little bit and get in his head.
“He’s pretty much the same since he’s been in high school,” Smith says. “He was a dominant player then and he’s a dominant player now. He’s added some more things to his game, and is one of the best – if not the best – big men in the game.”
As a rookie in 2004, Howard inherited a 21-win Orlando team that hadn’t gotten out of the first round of the playoffs since 1996. He took them to two consecutive Eastern Conference Finals and four consecutive trips to the postseason. That’s no Jane; that’s a straight beast.
“There’s always going to be people that doubt you,” says Howard. “The casual fan, I don’t think they understand how much work that we individually put in to be good players for the season. They don’t see that. Sometimes they see a loss and they see a bad game and they criticize us, and they don’t really understand what it takes to be at the top of your game.
“I think for me,” he goes on, “it’s just having total confidence in myself. In my game, in everything that I work on, but also having total confidence in trusting my teammates. And in doing that, you know, my team has to be like a machine.”
It’s a machine that Dwight has had to engineer and strengthen. Once his offseason travel schedule had slowed down, Dwight said he was in the gym “every night, regardless” working on his game at Orlando’s new arena. Free throws and shooting outside of the paint have always been Howard’s biggest weaknesses, admittedly, so it’s no surprise that he’s been almost exclusively focused on those areas. At the same time, the Magic need him less to be an offensive wizard and more for his intimidating presence on D.
“Well, the biggest thing is sacrifice,” says Howard. “You know, we have a lot of guys, a couple guys that (have to get) a certain amount of touches in. That’s the one thing that we all talked about before (last) season. I know the year before (’08-09) I averaged like 20 points, and people were saying my numbers weren’t up. It’s because of sacrifice, and I understand that.
“Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis, those guys need the ball also, and you know, I’m not a selfish player. But also it’s been defense that wins championships,” continues Howard. “So I put a lot of effort in on the defensive end, and the offensive end, all that stuff will come. But I know if I go out there and go hard on defense, I’ll give my teammates more confidence in themselves to get the job done.”
As Howard works to cement his growing legacy in Orlando with a championship this season – in a place where he says he sees himself staying for his entire career – doubts will continue to linger until he’s being fitted for a championship ring. Can the Magic win with Howard as “The Guy,” or is his path destined to mirror that of forefathers Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and Karl Malone? Or maybe the closest that this future Hall of Famer gets to a title in Orlando is second place. Because whether the Magic faithful are willing to publicly recognize it or not, Howard can become a free agent in two years.
A very large elephant is inevitably growing inside of the Orlando Magic family as we approach the summer of 2012, when Dwight can officially become a free agent. Will Howard “LeBronize” the organization and leave the only NBA home he’s ever known? It’s possible, because what will ultimately propel his career into the upper echelon of the NBA’s all-time greats is a world title. So what if the Magic can’t get over the Finals hump before Howard’s contract is up? There are almost too many questions to ponder.
Two Eastern Conference Finals, two missed championships. It was only two years ago that Howard and the Magic lost in five games to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, before marching back to the Conference Finals in 2010 where they fell to the Celtics. Orlando has had to absorb its share of playoff blows, only to turn those experiences into guidance for this upcoming season.
“Sometimes you have to lose to learn how to win, and I don’t see getting to the Finals and losing as a failure,” says Howard. “I mean, a lot of people have never made it to the Finals. So we understand how tough it is to get there.”
It’s ridiculous to think that Dwight and the Magic have seen their last chance at a ring with the current team makeup. It really has more to do with the growing shift currently in the NBA. Howard has at least 10 good seasons left in him, considering he’s only missed three career regular-season games. That leaves a lot of time to stock his mantle with championship hardware.
But as teams beef up their star power, and All-NBAers from King James to Chris Paul look to form their own super-squads, teams like Orlando could find it harder to rise above the fray. Carter and Lewis are now 33 and 31, respectively, and point guard Jameer Nelson has missed double-digit games each the last three years to injury. But if they can manage to stay healthy, Orlando has a chance to do something special now.
“We go through that every year,” says Howard. “We’ve been under the radar, we’ve heard people call us a sorry team. But at the end of the day, at the end of the year, our team has been at the top or around the top. Every year.”
With the national focus surrounding Boston and Miami – it feels like the media majority has already penciled in Lakers/Heat for June of 2011 – Howard and Orlando can relieve some of the outside pressure to win now. They signed Chris Duhon and Quentin Richardson over the summer, and also locked up Redick to a new contract extension. And if Carter and Lewis can provide the offensive firepower that they are still fully capable of producing, it can only add to Howard’s game. The Magic could indeed find themselves overmatching more superstar-laden teams with their overall depth.
“In our minds, we want to win a championship and we don’t care what nobody says,” says Howard. “We don’t care what nobody thinks about our team. The only thing we can control is how hard we go out on the court and play, and that’s the only thing that’s on our minds.
“We don’t care about being in the preseason top-10 or people giving out championship trophies already to teams,” he says. “We don’t care about that stuff. We know that if we go out on the court every day from the time training camp starts to the end of the season, we’re going to have a great chance to win that championship.”
In a way, the legend of Dwight Howard reads like an open book, serialized chapter-by-chapter to a waiting audience. In a world that wants to know the whole story at once, the suspense of preseason’s October equals the passion of postseason’s June.
Is Dwight’s legacy set to include a string of championship titles for the Magic? That remains his story to write. But Howard’s seventh chapter has started and likely won’t be over until early summer – giving plenty of time for the man in Orlando to show us what is myth, and what is reality.
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